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By Brian Park
Francine Pala Sommers Yorba, vice chairwoman of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians tribal council, died in her home Friday, December 7. She was 53.
Yorba passed away in her sleep, according to family members. The cause of death has yet to be determined.
Yorba was born in San Juan Capistrano and raised in the city’s Little Hollywood neighborhood in the Los Rios Historic District. She was a vocal representative of the Juaneño tribe in their efforts to gain federal recognition. The tribe was dealt a blow when they were denied recognition in 2011, but the tribe is currently working on appealing the decision. Yorba, who served on the council for 16 years, made frequent trips to Washington D.C. to speak out in favor of the tribe.
“She was very powerful. She was very confident and proud of her heritage,” said friend and former tribal council member Nathan Banda, who also serves on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission. “When the government would say one thing that wasn’t true, she’d stand up to them. She was a rolodex of information.”
Yorba also helped oversee membership of more than 1,900 tribal members and helped identify all the San Juan Capistrano families with ties to the historic Juaneño tribe.
Friends and family say Yorba often took the lead role in speaking out on issues she was passionate about.
“Sometime in the early ‘70s, when she was about 16 or 17, (Francine) and a bunch of her friends had a bunch of mopeds and they decided to protest against tourists in San Juan Capistrano. They drove through town honking their little horns,” brother Dennis Sommers said. “I have so many good stories about my sister.”
According to Sommers, when Yorba was first elected onto the tribal council, “it was like a breath of fresh air.”
“She was voted in because of her popularity and all the hard work she had shown in the past,” Sommers said. “We can’t replace her. She was so important to the tribe.”
Yorba was seeking her third term as vice chair in the January tribal council election.
Sommers said Yorba brought the same helpful sincerity to her extended family—the tribe—as she did with her family.
“Being her big brother but being the youngest of all my brothers, I had no fear of going to my sister when I needed help. When I didn’t tell her, she’d find out and come to me. She did that for all my brothers and her kids,” Sommers said. “She was a bigger factor to her family than to her nation.”
Yorba is survived by four brothers, two sisters, four daughters and three grandchildren.
A viewing will be held Wednesday, December 12, at Lesniski Mortuary at noon. A rosary will follow at 7 p.m. Yorba’s funeral will take place Thursday, December 13, at Serra Chapel in Mission San Juan Capistrano, along with a bell-ringing ceremony and a funeral procession to the cemetery.